A few years ago, while browsing in a rare book store, I stumbled upon an antiquated copy of the 1885 edition of the Code of Ordinances for the City of Tuscaloosa. Its pages are quite brittle, but its legal prose gives the reader a small glimpse into the peculiar world of Victorian life. Many of the laws found in the book appear to be harsh by today’s standards, but quite comical to the modern onlooker.
For instance, working on Sunday was illegal and one could actually be fined for doing so. The code says that: “Any tradesman, laborer, or other person whatsoever, who shall do or exercise any worldly labor, or work of their ordinary calling on Sunday, (works of necessity, charity, and the necessary occasions of the family excepted.) shall, on conviction, be fined $10.” However, this may not sound like much, but the fine is approximately $250 in modern currency.
Although, early morning barbering was permitted to prepare souls for church. The code book also says that: “All barbers in the City may keep open their place of business until ten o’clock A. M. on Sunday, but not after, and for any violation of this ordinance the owner thereof, or the barber or workman performing the service, must, on conviction, be fined not exceeding $10.” Again, this is approximately $250 in today’s funds.
Not only were the fines from morality laws used to encourage respect for the sabbath, but they were also used to discourage foul language in the presence of Victorian females. One ordinance says that: “Any person who uses profane or obscene language, or does any indecent act in the view or hearing of any female, shall, on conviction, be fined not less than $5 nor more than $25.”
Apparently, City officials were serious about this law. The fine could range from approximately $125 to $600 in today’s currency. That’s one heck of a cuss jar!
Another Victorian law touches on the modern hot topic of potential voter bribes. The antiquated code book states: “Any person, who shall bribe, or offer to bribe, or by any other corrupt means attempts to influence any elector in giving his vote, or keep him from giving the same, or disturb or hinder him in the free exercise of the right of suffrage at any election held within the city of Tuscaloosa, he is guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned, or put to hard labor for the city for not exceeding 60 days.” In other words, those who bribe voters should be thankful that Alabama has forever banned the use of chain gangs as of 1996.
Lastly, mischievous boys who attempted to hitch a ride on the horsecar trolley were fined as well. A horsecar is a trolley pulled by horses or mules on rails. In the 1880‘s, horsecar trolleys were commonly referred to as streetcars. The code states that “Any boy who shall hang on the streetcars while in motion, or attempt to steal a ride thereon, or who shall play or engage in any sport about the same, after having first been warned to desist by some employee of said streetcar company, or some officer of the city, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof, shall be fined not exceeding ten dollars.” However, the fine may seem to be an extravagant amount of money for the time, but some of Tuscaloosa’s laws were made for safety reasons.
Victorian standards may appear peculiar to the modern eye, but think about how they would view our world today. Needless to say, morals and laws change over time. I’ve always held the view not to judge the past by today’s standards of rules and morality. After all, our morality laws, or lack thereof, may one day be judged by those who come after us.
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